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Dual Enrollment: The Good, the Bad, and the Potentially Ugly, Part I

This post is written by Eva Payne, NCTE TYCA Chair.  This post is the first of a three-part series. 

Eva_blue_coatDual-enrollment opportunities—college credit offered to high school students—benefit many students, yet adhering to best practices and providing funding for oversight for the myriad of ways that dual credit is offered have not kept pace with its rapid expansion. Dual enrollment/dual credit[1] is a big investment of taxpayer money, proven to be beneficial to some students and potentially risky for others. Underprepared students and students whose dual-enrollment courses are not equivalent to college courses may be awarded low-quality credits without the skills and knowledge needed for continued academic success.

An and Taylor (2015) and others note the 75% increase in dual enrollment over the past ten years. Despite this dramatic increase in dual enrollment, research has not yet identified the “mechanisms by which dual credit affects student outcomes” (An & Taylor, 2015). What was discovered is that some students benefit more than others: affluence is the single largest predictor in academic achievement. Racially diverse students and students living in poverty do not gain as much academic benefit from dual enrollment (Heulsman, 2015). Designing dual-enrollment opportunities that provide the potential for equal outcomes to all students is necessary work to avoid further disadvantaging our most fragile high school students.

Dual enrollment’s traditional role provided a means for students to reduce the time to complete college degrees. DE effectively accomplished this for many students, and some states, like my state of Oregon, mandated dual enrollment as part of a high school student’s experience. Recently, though, new roles for DE emerged. Some advocates now view DE not only as a way to save money and time for college-bound students but also as a path to higher education for historically underserved students.

Opening the financial door for high school students who live in poverty to take dual credits in states where there is cost involved, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced in October 2015 a one-time $20 million investment in dual enrollment. Currently, dual enrollment is subsidized by most states and universities, but sometimes the cost is not entirely covered. The federal Pell Grant money is intended to level the playing field of dual credit for high school students from lower-income families (NACEP “Federal,” 2015). Access to Pell Grant money and the good intention to expand dual-enrollment opportunities to a broader spectrum of high school students ensures that the already dramatic growth in DE will continue.

Heulsman’s and An & Taylor’s research brings into question whether the benefits of DE will accrue to a broader audience of high school students. In order for DE to have a positive impact on college completion, DE has to truly be equivalent to a college experience in its delivery (NACEP, 2015). Issues of “funding, course location, and eligibility requirements of both students and instructors” must be successfully addressed (Karp, Hughes, & Cormier, 2011, pg. 1). Taylor’s research cautions, “dual credit policies positively affect all students, but the effect is much smaller for low income students.” Lower-income students benefit less from DE, and they are at a much higher risk as they continue their academic journeys of acquiring student debt, dropping out, and defaulting on student loans (Heulsman, 2015).

Despite the alarming statistics and unintended but truly harmful consequences, many are calling for the expansion of dual enrollment to low-income high school students without specific plans to support this more vulnerable student population. The National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (2015) states that 66% of the 2,000 colleges and universities offering dual DE “contributed toward tuition.” NACEP posits that having to contribute toward tuition is the reason that fewer lower-income students participate in DE. According to the NACEP report, there is a 4% difference between low- and high-income students completing dual-enrollment courses. A 4% difference seems small and might also be explained by other factors, such as which students place into college-level coursework and the quality of the education at the high school the students attend. However, NACEP is not alone in pushing for federal funding of DE through Pell Grants as a means of opening the door to DE for low-income students. The 2015 ACT report asserts that only eight states pay entirely for dual credit, and nine states make students bear the entire cost of the courses. ACT argues that expense is a barrier and urges secure, reliable funding for the DE programs (p. 10).

Using Pell Grant money to pay for dual-enrollment classes may have the dismal consequence of further hobbling the students that it is designed help. These students may be further disadvantaged because Pell Grant funding provides inadequate college funding for low-income students even once they reach college. College students living in poverty often end up working minimum wage jobs and taking courses part-time on their long and perilous journey toward a degree. If a portion of their lifetime Pell Grant award is siphoned off while the student is still in high school, already poor students will be faced with taking on greater student loan debt. Accessing Pell Grant money in high school is unlikely to solve the impact of poverty on a student’s life, but it has the real possibility of making continuing education after high school even more challenging.

In “The Debt Divide: The Racial and Class Bias Behind the ’New Normal’ of Student Borrowing” (2015), Mark Huelsman explores the long-term, consequential impact of poverty and race on students who borrow money to attend college. Low-income students drop out of college with student debt at the rate of 38%; Black students drop out at the rate of 39% compared to 29% of White borrowers (Huelsman, 2015, p. 15). Students who drop out of college are more likely to default on student loans, thereby derailing their way out of poverty. These students then have no degree, a low salary, and a bad debt ruining their credit rating. Students take on enormous risks when they take on student loans to fund their hope of a better life for themselves and their families.

On the other hand, the high schools and colleges offering dual-enrollment opportunities enjoy a lucrative funding stream in most states. Sponsoring colleges typically do not pay the high school teacher who teaches the courses appearing on the student’s college transcript, and the high school still claims the student for state funding purposes. A Tennessee report notes that all six states in their study had some form of “double dipping.” That double dip means that the high school receives per-pupil funding from the state, and the college receives FTE from the state for the same student. In many cases, the college waives some or all of the tuition. Varying amounts of support are in place in these states for instructional materials (Karp, Hughes, & Cormier, 2011, p. 1). The high school and the college “double dip” into the state’s education dollars to support free or nearly free tuition for the student taking dual- enrollment classes—regardless of the financial circumstances of the student. While it would not be politically astute to alienate middle- and upper-class families benefitting from free college through dual enrollment, it seems entirely reasonable to match free enrollment just to those students qualifying for free lunch and have a sliding scale according to income levels for the rest.

[1] In this paper, dual enrollment (DE) will be used as an umbrella term for all college credits earned by high school students.

Eva Payne, National TYCA chair, teaches at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon.